Brian Jenkins, 1988

Brian Jenkins is Director of the Security and Subnational Conflict Program of the RAND Corporation. His many publications include International Terrorism, The Other World War, and The Future Course of International Terrorism. Today Dr. Jenkins shares his insights into the role of terrorism in the quest for peace.

Whiteley: You’ve written that terrorism is almost as difficult to define as it is to counteract. What do you mean?

Jenkins: Terrorism has become a fad word in our area. It’s used promiscuously, applied to all sorts of violence that is not strictly speaking terrorism. The term is also used as pejorative. If one side in a struggle can somehow affix the label ‘terrorist’ to its opponent, then somehow can persuade its intended audience to accept its political point of view. That makes definition very, very difficult. I’m sure everybody has heard the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Frankly, I reject that notion. I think it is possible to objectively define terrorism. If we define it according to the quality of the act, not the identity of the perpetrator, not the nature of the cause. An act of terrorism is first of all a crime in the classic sense: murder, kidnapping. In many cases it also would be a violation of the rules of war which, for example, prohibit the taking of hostages or define neutral territory, or prohibit violence against civilian non-combatants. An act of terrorism is carried out by an organized group with political objectives. We want to set aside the actions of individual lunatics; the man who took a shot at President Reagan was not a terrorist. It is an act carried out usually in such a way as to achieve maximum publicity. Often the group will claim credit for the action after it has taken place, and the true hallmark of terrorism is that it is intended to produce psychological effects that go beyond the immediate physical effects on the victim or target of the violence itself.

Whiteley: You’ve written that terrorists really prefer to target people. Why is that?

Jenkins: That has been really a development that we’ve seen over the years. If we go back to the early 1970s about 80% of all international terrorist attacks were directed against property, things, and only about 20% were directed against persons. In the 1980s as terrorism has become bloodier, half the attacks are directed against people, for an obvious reason. It’s possible to protect things. We can put walls around things, we can put x-rays around things to detect the presence of weapons and so on, but people are the soft target. So as we have taken measures to increase security against terrorists, they have moved in the direction of going after the softest targets.

Whiteley: You’ve also written that terrorists have a limited repertoire. To what does that refer?

Jenkins: They do. Terrorists do operate with a limited number of tactics; six basic tactics account for about 95% of all terrorist incidents. Bombings alone account for more than half of all the terrorist incidents; that plus assassinations, armed assaults, and taking hostages either by kidnapping, hijacking airliners, or what police call barricading hostage situations. That is where terrorists may seize a building, an embassy for example, and hold hostages and then make their demands. Terrorists tend to be more imitative than they are innovative. They will innovate when necessary to deal with a specific security measure. For example when we confront terrorists with security in one direction, they merely alter their tactics enough, or shift their sights to other still vulnerable targets in order to obviate those measures.

Whiteley: Do you expect terrorism to continue?

Jenkins: I think terrorism will persist. It will persist as a mode of political expression and potentially be used increasingly as an instrument to policy among states. Certainly political violence in one form or another has persisted for centuries. But since World War II there has been a long-range trend toward the privatization of violence, as the monopolies on violence, once possessed only by those things we call armies, have gradually come into the hands of groups, gangs, whose grievances, real or imaginary, it’s not always going to be possible to satisfy them.

Whiteley: You’ve written that the power to use terrorist tactics has shrunken to increasingly smaller groups.

Jenkins: That really is the long-range trend that we’ve seen. Power, the power to publicize, the power to alarm, the power to coerce, the power to disrupt, to disable, to destroy is descending to smaller and smaller groups. Or to put that another way, the small bands of irreconcilables, of fanatics, that have existed throughout the history of mankind have in our age become an increasingly potent force to be reckoned with.

Whiteley: Given this analysis, do you expect terrorism to escalate as a problem before our democracy and the rest of the world?

Jenkins: I think terrorism will persist; it probably will increase in volume. It has been increasing in volume for years now and all the trends seem to indicate that it will continue to increase. Whether terrorists will escalate, of that we can be less certain. There are certain constraints, technical, and even self-imposed constraints that apply even to those we call terrorists. Terrorists do not want to alienate their perceived constituents, they don’t want to provoke too much public revulsion, they don’t want to unleash unprecedented government crackdowns that the organization itself might not survive, and that tends to constrain them from entering the higher registers of violence. At the same time, however, these constraints have been eroding. We see an increased number of incidents with fatalities, incidents with multiple fatalities, and perhaps the most alarming trend in the 1980s is the increased number of incidents of large scale indiscriminate violence as terrorists detonate car bombs on city streets, plant bombs aboard airliners, in airports, in restaurants, department stores, discotheques - all actions calculated to kill in quantity.

Whiteley: What goal does indiscriminate violence have as opposed to attacking an ambassador or a government official of some kind?

Jenkins: Well, there is a kind of terrible logic behind indiscriminate violence. Indiscriminate violence is impossible to protect against, and it causes the most alarm because there is not a well-defined target group. Rather one becomes a victim by happenstance; you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb goes off, and that causes enormous alarm.

Whiteley: Do you see terrorists changing their tactics?

Jenkins: They like to use the best weapons that are available, but they tend to stick to weapons that are appropriate for their operations. This means that they don’t necessarily have to go up into high tech more exotic weapons in order to carry out their attacks. A pistol suffices for an assassination; explosives suffice for making a violent symbolic point. I think we probably will, in the future, see them acquire more powerful explosives. It is a turn that we already see. We will see them look for weapons that will enable them to do better what they already do now. Whether they will go beyond that into higher technology, there again we do have - we have some question about that. Again, you know terrorists are not under a great deal of pressure to innovate. The one reason is they have virtually unlimited targets. Terrorists can attack anything, anywhere, anytime. Governments can’t protect everything everywhere all the time, and that asymmetry gives the terrorist an advantage.

Whiteley: Let’s deal with the issue of government involvement in the sponsorship of terrorism. Is the phenomena of state-sponsored terrorism a new one?

Jenkins: It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon, but state-sponsored terrorism certainly has become an important feature in modern international terrorism. According to some estimates approximately 25% of all international terrorists incidents are in fact sponsored by national governments. Terrorism provides a certain - terrorism is attractive to a number of governments. Conventional war, the kind that is declared and openly fought, has become increasingly impractical. Modern weapons are costly, terribly destructive. Public opinion (domestic public opinion, in some cases world public opinion) imposes constraints. Constraints are also imposed by the international machinery, creaky as it is in some cases, and if all else fails, sometimes the superpowers who wish to avoid a confrontation themselves will step in to place limits on open conflict. On the other hand, terrorism offers a cheap deniable means of waging war, and particularly for the small nation that is unwilling or unable to mount a challenge on the battlefield, that is unwilling to try to achieve its objectives through conventional diplomacy, then terrorism represents a kind of equalizer in dealing a large and more powerful state.

Whiteley: There are some 160 odd nation-states in the world. How many of them are involved in state-sponsored terrorism?

Jenkins: Only a handful at the present time, and it’s a real - it remains a question - an important question as to whether or not that handful will increase, whether a growing number of nations will begin to see this utility, putting aside moral and legal considerations, of terrorism as an instrument of policy. If there are no costs, no penalties, if it serves a purposes then I fear more nations may begin to employ terrorist groups or adopt terrorist tactics as a means of achieving policy objectives, of protecting a regime, or even as a means of combating terrorism.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that there are only a small number of nation-states which are the principle targets of terrorism. Which are they and why?

Whiteley: Where is the Soviet Union?

Jenkins: The Soviet Union is in the top ten. It tends from year to year, of course these statistics vary from year to year. The Soviet Union may be in sixth or seventh place. Now it’s a distant sixth or seventh place compared to the volume of violence suffered by the top three, for example. But it is there, and in fact perhaps increasingly so, and that may account for the willingness in the last year or so of the Soviet Union to become more cooperative in efforts - international efforts - to combat terrorism.

Whiteley: Terrorists appear to be young. Is this just a phenomena of the media or is this the actual status?

Jenkins: Soldiers are young; terrorists are young. The people who actually carry out the operations tend frequently to range between the ages of 18 or 19 to 23, 24 years old. That’s about the range. Now, behind them the directors, the string pullers, the godfathers that organize and direct these operations may be of an older generation, but the actual troops of terrorism itself are young people for the most part.

Whiteley: What are the roots of their ideological motivation?

Jenkins: No single ideology has a monopoly on terrorism. Terrorism is basically a set of tactics that can be applied to any cause. Extreme left wing groups, extreme right wing groups both use terrorist tactics. Usually the big motors that drive terrorism on the world are either ideological conflict or ethnic or separatist quarrels. For example the Basque separatists in Spain, or the problem in Northern Ireland, or Corsican separatists, or so on. So it’s either ethnic quarrels or ideological conflict.

Whiteley: What problems do terrorists have in getting access to nuclear weapons?

Jenkins: Well, the nuclear weapons that have already been manufactured that are in the military arsenals of a number of nations are very well defended, and there has been growing concern in recent years about the threat posed by terrorists, and therefore those security measures around those weapons have increased. The other potential way terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon would be by manufacturing one themselves assuming they had somehow obtained nuclear material that was suitable for a weapon. I know it has become fashionable for college students to design atomic bombs instead of writing term papers, but the ease with which someone outside of government can design and fabricate - that’s an important part - and fabricate an improvised nuclear device has been greatly exaggerated. It is not something, contrary to what we read in the popular literature, that any bright lunatic can do in his garage. It would be a risky undertaking, the outcome would be doubtful, and I think the ease with which that can be done just has been greatly exaggerated.

Whiteley: Do you see terrorists motivated to acquire nuclear weapons?

Jenkins: That tends to be the more interesting question. While there’s a certain inherent attraction in going nuclear - that is, the word ‘nuclear’ in close proximity to the word ‘terrorism’, would have a tremendous effect in creating public alarm. It would seem that if terrorists could possess nuclear weapons and hold cities hostage there is nothing we could deny them. But I’m not so certain that terrorists are motivated to move in that direction. There are self-imposed constraints even on the part of those we label terrorists. They - thus far, terrorists seem to be more interested in having a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. Violence at that level could be counterproductive. It’s not entirely certain how they could translate that enormous coercive power into concrete political gains for their organization. They would face a fundamental problem of course. If they did not provide, say some terrorist possessing a nuclear capability, if they did not provide a guaranteed means of diffusing the threat, then of course there’s absolutely no incentive in meeting their demands. It becomes an issue of governance. If on the other hand they were to give up their capability then how would they enforce the demands that they would bring about. So this gets into a rather interesting area of coercive - coercive bargaining.

Whiteley: How will terrorism fit into the future of armed conflict?

Jenkins: I think terrorism is emerging as another mode of armed conflict. When we look to the future we look forward to an age in which conventional warfare, classic guerrilla warfare (the kind that Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevarra wrote about), and international terrorism will co-exist with the three being used sequentially, simultaneously, interchangeably. We look forward to an era of warfare that may be less destructive than the two World Wars that took place in the first half of the century, but at the same time it will be an era of warfare that is less coherent. There won’t be sharp definitions between war and peace, between war and post-war. The world will not be at war; the world will not be at peace. The world will be at war and at peace at the same time, and war will not be confined by geographic frontiers. There will be no such thing as local conflict anymore; I’d say a much more complex, a much less coherent era of warfare than has been the case in the past.

Whiteley: Do we have a special vulnerability as a democracy to the terrorists’ use of hostages?

Jenkins: We have a special vulnerability in our society. Our society places a great premium on individual human life. Now I say that not hypocritically, recognizing that we have 20,000 criminal homicides a year right here in the United States, and that in many cases hostages are taken in parts of the world where wars are being waged, where there’s a level of carnage, and one has to ask the question, "What difference does one life more or less make?" "Should concern about that one life override national interest?" Well the fact is that in our society it does, and our society will go to extraordinary lengths when it has the option, when it has the choice, to save an individual human life. Whether we’re talking about terrorism, whether we’re talking about in the context of war, the tremendous efforts that were made, risks that were taken on the part of hundreds of soldiers during the Vietnam War to save one downed pilot, one could say, "What’s the difference?" Or whether it is the efforts made by miners, at the risk of their own lives, to dig out one possible survivor of a mine disaster, that is the way our society works. We will go to extraordinary lengths to save the life of an individual, and that makes us inevitably vulnerable to the kind of coercion that is exerted in a hostage situation. Having said that, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Whiteley: I’d like to pick up on a theme that’s recurrent in your writings, namely that terrorism is a problem which will remain before our democracy, and ask you to indicate what our options are in dealing with the principal sponsors of terrorism.

Jenkins: We confronted a twofold problem. On the one hand, we confront what by now may be called ordinary terrorism: Terrorism directed against American citizens and facilities abroad by diverse groups in a number of countries around the world. In dealing with that kind of terrorism our posture is essentially a defensive one. We try through intelligence to anticipate possible terrorist attacks and through physical security measures to protect ourselves the best we can. And when incidents do occur, as inevitably they will, we rely primarily on the local government to pursue the terrorists. On the other hand we confront statesponsored terrorism. Here a purely defensive posture may not be enough, and here is what has provoked a profound national debate and that is whether or not the United States should use military force in response to state-sponsored terrorism. We have. It has not appreciably reduced the total volume of international terrorism. I’m not sure it will prove to be a long-term deterrent even on the part of the government against which it was used. But the argument is that we cannot simply stand there and take terrorist punches. To do so will be to not only encourage those who are now using terrorism as an instrument of policy, but also to inspire others to use it against us.

Whiteley: Dr. Jenkins, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the role of terrorism and the quest for peace.